When you travel to a foreign country, you are confronted with different traditions and customs and Korea is no exception to the rule. As in all Asian cultures, there are rules of etiquette in Korea that must be followed and which are imposed by society on certain occasions.
Let’s take a detailed look at the top 10 rules of etiquette in Korea.
1. Take off your shoes
It’s a standard of Korean etiquette that you’ll find in most homes. Indeed, you must remove your shoes before entering. We don’t wear shoes inside because it’s not very hygienic after walking in the street and especially because Koreans, like many Asians, sleep, study and spend a lot of time on the floor.
It is even possible that in some traditional restaurants with wooden floors you will be asked to take off your shoes, so don’t be surprised!
2. Bow down
Just like in Japan, Koreans bow to show their respect especially with people they don’t know or with their colleagues. It’s not uncommon to see students bowing to their sunbae (older student) and ajumma (women in their 50s) bowing to greet you in restaurants.
There are several types of “tilt”: the most familiar being that which consists of only tilting the head and the most formal those where you have to bow by changing the degree according to the person for whom it is intended (literally 15°, 30°, 45°, as if you were standing with a protractor doing the math).
3. Drinking with people in his company
You may have noticed it in some dramas, but the drinking culture in Korea is very important. Indeed, drinking with people in your company is a sign of unity, respect for your elders or superiors and is a way to release pressure after work.
Among the rules for drinking in Korea are:
- never pour yourself a drink
- never serve with one hand (hold your wrist or elbow with the other)
- never drink facing an older person but turn slightly to the right
- never refuse a drink (unless you are allergic or if you don’t drink, in which case it is good to mention it in advance).
Little tip: If you don’t want to drink like a sponge, try never to completely finish your glass, it’s only filled when it’s empty!
4. Thanking before and after meals
Just like in Japan, there is a thank you ritual in Korea before and after meals. When you start eating, you join your hands and say jal meokkesseumnida ( 잘 먹겠습니다 ) or “I’m going to eat well (which is the equivalent of “bon appetit”). At the end of the meal, the phrase jal meogeosseumnida ( 잘 먹었습니다 ) is used to thank and show that you enjoyed the meal.
5. Share your meal
Traditionally, Koreans like to share their meals with others. This is why when you eat at someone’s house or in a restaurant in Korea, you will be served many small dishes as a side dish that you will share with your table companions. Also, when ordering food, if you have a Korean friend or companion with you, it is good to order something that can be shared.
If you ask “how about a pizza?” it is also to share it. Indeed, it will already be cut and it is not very polite to eat a whole pizza alone.
6. Not tipping
It is not Korean custom to tip under any circumstances. Indeed, it is considered rude and disrespectful because Koreans believe that providing good customer service is not a favor but a duty.
7. Receive and give with two hands
The business card is very important in Korea, as it introduces and defines the person you are talking to. Koreans follow the established social hierarchy, so when exchanging business cards formally, keep two things in mind: give it with both hands and receive the other the same way. Indeed, receiving a business card in one hand is seen as an offense to the other person, so be very careful.
The same goes for gifts and money, even credit cards. If you have your hands full of bags and parcels and need to pay, it is possible to use only one in this case.
8. Do not sit in reserved seats in the metro
It is a great lack of respect to sit in the reserved places in the metro. These are different colored seats compared to the others and you will find between 9 and 12 in each train. As a foreigner, you may be wrong at first, but you risk being reprimanded in Korean by someone for whom this seat is intended (elderly, disabled or pregnant women).
9. Respect the elderly
This is a rule that should be respected everywhere in the world and we should follow Korea’s example. Koreans are generally very respectful of the elderly, including giving them space on trains or buses. This can be seen in the way they address them using specific terms depending on the age of the person (we talked about this a bit more in our Korean drama article ).
For example, at the table it is customary to wait until an older person has taken their chopsticks before they can eat. If you are unsure of the age of the person you are eating with, it is best to wait until they have started eating before doing so. That way, you don’t risk giving the wrong impression.
10. Write your name in red
Even if you’re not very superstitious, it’s best to avoid writing your name or someone else’s name in red. Indeed, in the past in Korea it was customary to write the names of deceased persons in red in family registers or on funeral insignia. It is said that evil spirits hate the color red.
You now know the main rules of etiquette in Korea. Are you surprised by some? (or are you lucky you discovered them before you made embarrassing mistakes?) Feel free to comment below!